“The Keepers,” The Catholic Church, And Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

I began watching Netflix’s new “true crime” series “The Keepers” last night. I may not last through all seven episodes. In addition to the documentary story-telling methodology, which moves at the pace of a slug-race, the story of how unsolved murder of a Baltimore nun might  be part of  (yet another) horrific cover-up by the Catholic Church made me so angry and frustrated that I quit in the middle of the third episode. The series makes the case that the nun, Sister Catherine “Cathy” Cesnik, was killed because she was about  to reveal ongoing sexual abuse of young teenage girls by the priest running the Archbishop Keough High School for girls.

The abuse and the extent of it is not speculation. As in so many other places, the Catholic Church in Baltimore eventually paid millions in damages to multiple victims of multiple predator priests who the Church moved around the  region—so they could molest and assault new victims—rather than handing them over to law enforcement. It is hard to imagine any priest worse than Father Joseph Maskell, however, if even some of the allegations against him are true. Victims say he used student files and illicit police connections to target teenage girls who were already being sexually abused. He manipulated them using a sick combination of religion, guilt, hypnotism and intimidation, sexually abused them, and even delivered some over to members of the Baltimore police department for more abuse.

The documentary focuses on the school’s Class of ’69, though there must have been equally abused girls before and after. The conspiracy of silence began to crack in 1992, when an especially  victimized member of the class suddenly realized that she had repressed memories of horrible experiences, and finally complained to the Baltimore Archdiocese, setting off the kind of despicable Church defensive strategies too familiar to anyone who has seen “Spotlight.”

This documentary isn’t good for my state of mind. It makes me wonder not only if all is lost, but also if all wasn’t lost long ago. I was raised in a largely Catholic community. I am not religious, but as an ethicist I recognize the important, civilizing role religion has played in teaching and enforcing moral principles for the majority of the public for whom ethical analysis is too challenging. Episodes like the Father Maskell scandal raise questions that I rebuke myself for asking, like “How can this be?” “Jane Doe,” the star witness in the documentary, is still a devout Catholic. Her immediate response to every dilemma is to pray. I don’t get it. She was savaged, threatened and abused by a priest that she knows the Church allowed to prey on the vulnerable students entrusted to him. Why would she still trust the Catholic Church?

Why would anyone?

More questions I don’t want rattling around in my head…She says that Maskell took her to see the maggot-infested body of the dead nun in the woods, telling her that ” now she knows what happens to people who say bad things about other people.” Why didn’t she tell her parents? Why didn’t she go to the police? Why didn’t she do something to at least get her out of that school? How can waiting 23 years, while a possibly murderous predator continued to abuse girls, be explained or excused? I know that this is the most heartless variety of victim-blaming, and I don’t want my mind to wander there. But relieving victims of all responsibility and accountability inevitably creates more victims. It did in this case.

How many members of the staff at Archbishop Keough High School knew, or should have known, what was happening to students? This question really is driving me crazy: How many other communities had, or have, undetected Father Maskells being protected by the victims, the church, or complicit institutions like the Baltimore police? News continues to emerge regarding sexual abuse cover-ups at elite private schools—Brearley, Choate, nearly 70 private schools in New England aloneWHAT? Are there no institutions that can be trusted not to conspire to exploit, betray and violate children? How do administrators so devoid of even rudimentary integrity, courage and ethics alarms reach positions of power so often, for so long? If these people—priests, teachers, educators, law enforcement officials—are so thoroughly corrupt and devoid of basic decency, compassion and responsibility, what chance do the rest of us have?

How can we build and maintain an ethical society when it is rotten where it needs to be healthiest…in its heart and mind?

For some reason, this all send my mind back decades to a time when a Catholic Bishop played a crucial role in awakening me, as a child, to ethical thinking. He is all but forgotten now; I wonder how many people under the age of 50 would even recognize his name. He was the amazing Fulton J. Sheen (you can read his biography here) , and incredible as it seems, this Catholic Bishop not only gave weekly lectures to America about life, philosophy, ethics and human values, but did it in prime time with larger audiences than the most network shows today.

While he was still teaching at Catholic University in Washington, D.C, Monsignor Sheen had gained national renown as an orator, author, philosopher and radio personality. Then some creative TV executive made him star of his own TV show, in prime time,  called “Life is Worth Living.”  The series ran on the DuMont Television Network from February 12, 1952 to April 26, 1955, then on ABC until 1957, followed by similar shows hosted by Sheen, these typically shown on Sunday afternoons, in 1958–1961 and 1961–1968.

A charismatic, natural performer with a keen sense of humor and timing, Sheen, by then a Bishop, talked to Catholic and non-Catholics alike about religious, moral, ethical and sometimes political issues using just a blackboard. I’m not making this up:  Bishop Sheen won an Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality in 1952.”Life Is Worth Living” was aired on 169 local stations across the country, and is believed to have been the most widely-viewed religious series in the history of television.

My father, a half-hearted Methodist, would watch Sheen’s performances every week—among other reasons, he said it purged his brain of the pedestrian and banal blatherings of our minister at the Arlington Congregationalist Church—and even though his children were barely able to read, we watched with him. Following each show my Dad would discuss with us what the lecture had been about, often varying from Sheen’s views. That was a period where blacks were only half-citizens, women were second-class citizens and gays were in virtual hiding: I can’t say that America was a  more ethical society when Bishop Sheen was bringing ethics into the living rooms of the average citizen very week. I can say, however, that it was a period where organized religion was taking a leadership role in promoting ethics literacy, and that there were high profile ethical exemplars to inspire and guide us, figures we could trust, and institutions we did trust, though it now appears that trust was naive.

Many of Sheen’s lectures are available on YouTube. They are still worth watching, if only to remind us, like the lyrics of Camelot, that once there was a spot on TV where millions of Americans could go to think about right and wrong at least once a week.

Today, TV just makes me wonder if society has become so corrupt that I am wasting my time.

Heeeeeeere’s FULTON!


28 thoughts on ““The Keepers,” The Catholic Church, And Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

  1. “Jane Doe,” the star witness in the documentary, is still a devout Catholic. Her immediate response to every dilemma is to pray. I don’t get it. She was savaged, threatened and abused by a priest that she knows the Church allowed to prey on the vulnerable students entrusted to him. Why would she still trust the Catholic Church?

    This doesn’t seem all that incomprehensible to me. One doesn’t pray to a priest or to a pope or to a religious organization. One prays to God.

    Not at all the same.


  2. What a horrific story! But it’s hard to see how you pondering about why Jane Doe didn’t go to the police or tell someone doesn’t constitute victim blaming.

    It’s fairly easy to see why she didn’t. You detail that the priest was already working with the police to accomplish his crimes. She was underage, and had also been shown the body of one of the priest’s murder victims, and he was confident enough to show it to her. As a troubled teen, she almost certainly did not have a good relationship with her parents to confide in. Basically, she had nowhere to turn. What does a teen girl realistically do under such circumstances?

    People back then had an overwhelming trust in institutions and the people who represented such institutions, trust that has, for better and worse, been eroded now. Sexual crimes, especially if one knew one’s abuser, was considered deeply suspect and shameful for the accusing party.

    • I think I covered all of that in the post. I said that it was close to victim blaming, and I don’t like doing that; on the other hand, being a victim does not absolve someone from larger responsibilities.

      Victim blaming is when you blame someone for what happened to her. Blaming someone for what they do after what made them a victim is citizen-blaming. She blamed herself, in fact: she asked why, when she told her own children to immediately report it if anyone “did something”, she couldn’t do it herself?

      Good question, and I got sick of hearing her ask it.

      • But who was she going to report it to? The police? You went over the problem with that. And even if there was someone she trusted that she could report what happened to her, that person also runs into the same problem. Once the police are corrupted, unless you are willing to turn vigilante and take the law into your own hands, there aren’t a lot of choices. For me, it’s relatively easy to see why she didn’t say anything. All that would have accomplished is that the nun would have a a companion with her in the shallow grave.

          • “Victims say he used student files and illicit police connections to target teenage girls who were already being sexually abused…”

            Her parents may very well have been part of the problem. Most abusers are savvy. They target people who are vulnerable, and already less likely to be believed, like troubled teens, the mentally ill, people with criminal backgrounds. Most of those people already have a distrust of those institutions, and are well aware that their credibility is nonexistent. And the passage of time only decreases their credibility, it doesn’t increase it.

  3. As a freshman at Georgetown, I was sexually molested by an intern and a resident (may their souls rot) at Georgetown University Hospital. And yet I have no trouble being treated there now. Not all priests are sexual predators. Some are indeed evil, though, IMHO, as they are flawed human beings. The Church is not the priests. The Church is the people.

    That said, we must remember that sexual predators can be found in all walks of life — medical personnel, for instance, and officials of other religions. We just seem to hold Catholic priests up to a higher standard. And maybe we should, but why? Why shouldn’t everyone be held up to the same high standard and judged equally? I trusted those 2 creeps at the hospital. They were medical professionals. Shouldn’t I have been able to hold them to the same higher standard? Yes. Why didn’t I report them? Because I didn’t even realize I had been molested until many years later. How can this be? Patrice is an intelligent woman. She should have realized. Ah, the power of suppressing (not repressing) painful, embarrassing memories.

    • “The Church is not the priests. The Church is the people.”

      Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, Patrice. To anyone not interested in it, the notion of an invisible church and a visible church just looks too much like a No True Scotsman argument, even though it is an actual admission that there are quite a few wretches in the visible church. Of course that’s to be expected because all members of the Church were at some point (and to a degree still are) wretches.

      Christianity will always have a special target on it when it fails to live up to its own standards. There is big picture reason for this. In some instances Church discipline probably is not practiced with the rigor with which it ought be, but even then there’ll be a reason to dig at Christianity.

    • We just seem to hold Catholic priests up to a higher standard. And maybe we should, but why?

      I won’t claim any formal theological credentials here, but the reason the Church is and will remain a target is because it claims to be something special. It claims, in a very literal sense, to be the the Body of Christ, and when a priest, who acts in persona christe at the altar, and is trusted with one’s deepest darkest sins, never to speak of them outside of the confessional, does something deep and dark and sinful to a child, and binds him to secrecy, it might as well be Christ himself committing the abuse.

      Now, a clever apologist might argue that the abused child is one of Christ’s least, but when the little one has already been lead to stumble, theological condemnations sound hollow.

      Now, the question was asked how does one trust the Catholic Church after such a horrific series of abuses? The simple answer is that one cannot. The circumstances that allowed this to occur are completely unacceptable and untenable. A different question: how does an abused member remain a faithful Catholic? The answer is also simple: the same way as any other faithful Catholic. (Note the lack of argument for remaining faithful – you either believe or you do not).

      A recent post here discussed analyzing a problem to understand, but not condone, what happened. Such is needed here. The abuse was enabled by people not understanding abuse, people witnessing it and saying nothing (out of fear of shunning, fear of disobedience, etc). The priesthood has an aura of respectability: it was attractive to people seeking power; it was attractive to people fearing they might harm a child and seeking the safety of a celibacy; It was attractive to people wishing to have access to children to abuse.

      Once in the priesthood, a position that leaves it occupant in solitude often, men had lots of time on their hands. Families would willing hand their middle sons over to priests that showed them attention, hoping they would be attracted to the vocation. Boys, feeling pressured to liked by the priest, would be afraid speak up when abused. Girls, the rarely talked about victims, risked being labeled sluts by their families for seducing the priests. If rumors made it anywhere, people willfully ignored such salacious gossip.

      Any faithful Catholic must acknowledge the hard truths above, less more abuse continue in their willful ignorance. The church cannot be trusted to protect children – it is irrelevant if other institution cannot be trusted either. The duty must fall upon the parents foremost to be vigilante as to who they personally entrust their children to, and educate their children in appropriate boundaries with adults. They must empower children to speak up when these boundaries are tested.

      The institutional Church can meet the faithful half way by developing programs for educating parents and helping to educate the children in appropriate boundaries. Many of these programs have been in place for years now. Trust cannot be blind; eyes must be open and watching that these programs are meaningfully followed.

      The Boy Scouts of America, an organization that once had a not-undeserved reputation for scoutmasters creeping on scouts, implemented a very successful Youth Protection Program that limits opportunities for abuse by requiring two adults to supervise all activities and prohibiting one-on-one contact between adults and youth out of sight or earshot from others. With others always present, it is difficult for an adult to isolate and groom a scout to accept abuse. The current Catholic Program is substantially similar.

      There was another question, as to why the Catholic Church must be singled out. This can only be honestly answered by stating that most of the criticism directed to the church is deserved, even if other organizations deserve it as well. 4% of priests committed abuse. This is newsworthy. Multiple opportunities to address it were overlooked, some by chance, some by neglect, some by malice.

      All one can ask is that the information be reported accurately, NOT because the church deserves to be treated fairly, but because distorting the facts only provides cover to others who wish to prey upon children.

  4. I was never abused by a teen, but I would be concerned if: 1) I was shown a dead body and was told it was my fault; and 2) was already being raped by police officers. I would be concerned that my siblings or my parents would be next. If you read up on child molesters, that is usually the threat that is given. Now if you add in that this child was already the victim of abuse before all of this happened to her, I think it is obvious why she stayed silent.

  5. I should add — I watched the whole series. It also came out that the priests were drugging them in the office and that the other nuns knew as well but did nothing.

  6. Oh my…thank you for the memories! When my husband of 47 years was in 7th grade, back in the late 1950s, he interviewed Bishop Sheen – a friend of the family’s – for an English paper on the Papacy. Being that my husband’s family is Jewish, his teacher, a devout Catholic, didn’t believe his citations and quotes from the Bishop – and even told her young student that the Bishop’s first name was “Vincent”. Being a thorough researcher, my young husband-to-be returned to the Bishop to explain his problem, whereupon Bishop Sheen wrote a letter to the teacher, verifying the interview and underlining the name “Fulton”. (Oh how we wish the family had saved that gem!) The teacher never apologized, but did change that 7th grader’s grade.
    Years later, when hubby’s grandpa – who first met Sheen while doing some gold leaf painting in St. Patrick’s Cathedral – had a heart attack in downtown NYC, he was immediately whisked away to St. Vincent’s hospital. While seeking ID on the critically ill patient, the emergency crew found a photo in grandpa’s wallet – of Bishop Sheen with a personal note included. Immediately a priest was summoned to give the last rites, during which Grandpa Gersh woke and mentioned that he was Jewish. Many apologies were issued quickly, but Grandpa Gersh poo-pooed them with a wave of his hand, saying, “It’s OK, I can use all the help I can get.” He lived for another 10 years. 🙂

    • Well apparently they weren’t the last rights. I don’t care what variety of clergy shows up on my deathbed be they Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Buddhist as long as somebody shows up.

  7. Thanks for the Fulton Sheen videos. Still relevant for us all.

    Question. In his talk of the three confessions mr. Sheen refers to three books at9:45. Does anyone know what the second book is? I can’t understand what he says at that moment

    • By the way I discover Bishop Sheen a few years ago and I believe he would be horrified about the many scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church.

    • One of the zingers at the end of the docuseries is that the forensics examiner confirmed that the victim’s throat was filled with maggots. There apparently were unseasonably hot days that allowed maggots to develop. Also, Jane Doe was completely sequestered from the other victims until recently and they all had the same allegations of abuse — which are weird even by abuse standards.

  8. Jack, thanks for removing my half-post! Here’s the polished version. And thank you for the excellent expose on Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
    Why would anyone still trust the Catholic Church? This is a question that is near and dear to me, as I consider myself a very ardent Catholic.
    The issue of the pedophile priest problem weighs very heavily on many Catholics, non-Catholics, and ex-Catholics today. I suppose the scandal may be worse when we consider this is not the first time that a dissipate clergy has rocked the Catholic world with scandalous and salacious behavior. It reminds me of the story from the early nineteenth century, when Emperor Napoleon had made the Pope his prisoner, and then was dealing with a cardinal, one of the Pope’s legates to the Emperor. In a fit of frustration, Napoleon stated, “Your Eminence, do you not realize I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church?” To which the cardinal replied, “Your Excellency, we the clergy have been trying to destroy it for the past 1800 years. What makes you think you can succeed?”
    There’s a general question to ask, and that is whether the actions of some members of an organization constitute to representative of the entire organization. The difficulty of answering this is compounded by the very nature of the organization itself. Does, for example, the existence of the organization depend on the very persons involved in the scandal? For smaller groups, such as the Legion of Christ led by Fr. Maciel, it is most likely that the group does not deserve trust when its founder and upper echelons are all involved with the scandal. But for larger groups that have endured for some time, scandal even at the highest levels does not mean the organization should not be trusted. This is especially so if efforts are made by the organization to correct the problem. Should the White Sox never be trusted again because of the Black Sox scandal, or does the fact that there will be new players and new management mean that the White Sox can be a respectful group once again?
    What about trusting the Catholic Church? Certainly it is a long established organization. The deeds of a group of priests, bishops, and even popes can be scandalous, but do not define the Church as a whole. The Church has maintained its moral teachings despite popes who definitively acted to the contrary. The Church has maintained its doctrine despite a vast sea of pressures seeking to make it change. This constancy is something that encourages people, not because the Church is using a rationalization, either the Saint’s Excuse or the King’s Pass, but because they know that the Church has these immutable standards by which these scandalous clergyman can be judged.
    It is telling that the Church does not condone the molestation of minors. I suppose one can argue that the Church implicitly condones such actions by the efforts of some clergy to hide the scandal. I disagree. First, if it means that an organization condones an action because some of its members act that way, then every organization stands condemned of condoning terrible deeds. Do our school systems condone child molestation? Do our law firms condone forcing clients into sexual favors? Does our nation condone every evil known to man because some Americans have committed those crimes? That hardly stands to reason.
    Second, even in the efforts to hide the scandal, those who were shuffling priests around revealed that they knew – they very well knew! – that the priests had acted against Catholic teaching. Perhaps these bishops were worried about the faithful losing faith, or perhaps there were other considerations involved (there is some evidence that a great many of these priests came out of seminaries that more resembled frat houses than training grounds for clergymen, and so there might have been some desire to hide a common link to a favored post-Conciliar attitude), but if they didn’t see anything wrong with the conduct of those priests, why the secrecy? Why the bribes and threats? They knew they were betraying their Catholic faith.
    So there is a distinction between the organization and its members. The organization is held together by a creed and code – what members believe, and how members are to act. In one sense, then, when people maintain trust in the Catholic Church, they are trusting the Church’s doctrines and dogmas, the Church’s teaching body as a whole. They are not necessarily trusting a priest, or a congregation of bishops, or even the pope, all of whom history have shown to be as fallible and sinful as the rest of us. It is painful when a powerful personality is shown to be a failure or a fraud, but their failure to live up to moral teaching is not an indictment on the moral teaching.

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